8 Oct 2013

Press charter wobble and pause

The phone-hacking saga, the judge-led inquiry, the soul-searching over how to make sure the newspapers keep to certain standards without being gagged … it was all meant to be quietly put to bed with a tranquil meeting of the ancient Privy Council at which the Queen would confer a royal charter on the body that certifies whether self-regulation is working.

But the royal charter that all¬†three main parties signed up to doesn’t have a single newspaper backing it.

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The government at the moment looks like it would be setting up a club that no-one wanted to join and the newspapers (or at least most of the big players) are showing every sign of setting up their own club over the road with different rules.

It is a red hot controversy at the moment and Buckingham Palace is not in the business of conferring the “royal” tag on hugely controversial bodies.

David Cameron has decided that he must try to broker agreement between the three main parties and the press to get a modified version of the royal charter that was agreed by parliament.

That means negotiations and changes and not everyone is up for that. The Tories can’t move without the Lib Dems moving and the Lib Dems are keeping a very close eye on Labour which shows little inclination to move.

Like staring at the sand, you can see some granules shifting. Some in Labour are willing to contemplate changes to arbitration to protect local newspapers and the Lib Dem leader sounds to some ready to engage with all sorts of changes if his party will let him.

But that doesn’t mean there will be a unified conclusion to all this.

There is profound distrust on both sides. Newspapers think that, in the words of one close to the whole process, the recognition panel could be peopled with “Cathcart clones,” a reference to the professor who is a central figure in the Hacked Off campaign and a bete noir of some of the papers.

Until yesterday, it looked like the government/three-party version of the royal charter would be signed off with just a few house-keeping measures to be finalised, like date of commencement, regulator approval charges and the like. Now it’s got a bigger question mark over it.

The prime minister, who is the prime mover behind all this, probably needs to sweet-talk Ed Miliband into opening up some other clauses of the agreed charter and the man who’s just been in a skirmish with the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday may not feel too disposed to help out.

Update: Culture Secretary Maria Miller has announced all three parties have set themselves a four-day essay crisis to tweak/rewrite/compromise* (* delete as applicable) the charter it agreed in March and said then was final and complete.

Labour has signed up to this time-limited and scope-limited rethink.

It’s done so on the basis that it still needs all three party leaders’ agreement and the areas for fresh discussion are limited to who sits on the code committee and the working of the arbitration process.

The homework has to be “in” by Friday. But these deadlines have proved flexible before and the next Privy Council meeting is 30 October so you have to wonder if the timetable will stick.

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